Could time be running out on the Canada-U.S. perimeter deal

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Excerpted from Lawrence Martin ‘Could time be running out on the Canada-U.S. perimeter deal’ an ipolitics insight, October 20, 2011

A while back the Canada-U.S. perimeter accord looked like a done deal. Officials leaked word that President Barack Obama would come to Ottawa to sign a framework agreement on the border plan, one which would ease passage for goods, services and people.

But now there are doubts. Officials are holding out the possibility that owing to U.S. election year politics and other snags like the Buy-American issue, the deal could fall by the wayside.

The U.S. election primaries begin in January. “Election year. That`s the danger in this — that it gets spiked simply because time runs out,” said Canada-U.S. specialist Colin Robertson who is in touch with negotiators. “Once you get into the primaries then it`s really hard to get anybody`s attention.”

Robertson expressed optimism that the deal will make it. “I still think there is the time, if there`s the will.” Another official said the chances were about 50-50.

Protectionist measures like the Buy-American provisions in the president`s economic stimulus package aren`t making the finalizing of a border accord any easier. Yesterday top representatives of the respective governments were in open disagreement over the measures.

In a speech in Ottawa, U.S. ambassador David Jacobson said that the Buy-American provisions would not heavily impact Canada. But he was quickly rebutted by Trade Minister Ed Fast. Citing a previous Washington attempt at introducing Buy American regulations, Fast bluntly responded that “trade-restrictive measures between our two countries were recognized as wrong then. And they remain wrong now.”

A show of public discord of this kind isn`t normally the type of diplomacy that heralds the signing of a major bilateral agreement.
Officials now say it is highly unlikely that President Obama will come to Ottawa for a signing. They are hoping that the president will have Stephen Harper to the Oval Office for the ceremony.

A framework perimeter accord between the two sides has essentially been agreed upon. There are only some details to be worked out. If the two leaders sign it, then a round of consultations with provinces, states and other stakeholders need take place before the final accord is set. That could take months as some of the measures in the pact have to be approved by Congress. The election, which could see the Obama administration defeated, takes place next November.

Canadian provinces have signaled they are on board with the agreement as has the business community which also wants improvements on border access. But the framework agreement could contain security provisions on sharing of personal information between the two countries that could prompt opposition based on sovereignty concerns.

Initially the U.S. side wanted the deal to be worked out and signed by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and her Ottawa counterpart, the public safety minister. But Ottawa rejected that plan, saying it would have too much the look of a security pact. Robertson said that for the deal to get approval in the U.S. it has to have the imprimatur of the president and the prime minister.

On election year timing, he recalled that a Canada-U.S. partnership accord fell by the wayside in 1999 owing to the 2000 campaign. On the other hand he said that the free trade agreement got approved in 1988, the year that Ronald Reagan ended his presidency.

A problem now, Robertson noted, is that Obama has an even bigger load of crises on his desk than in normal times. In such an atmosphere it’s hard for a Canadian concern – it’s Harper who initially pushed for the border accord – to make it to the top of the pile.

For Canadian leaders, it’s a problem with a long history. One day back in the 1950s, Lester Pearson, then external affairs minister, visited Dwight Eisenhower, the golfing president, at the White House. Pearson raised what he considered a pressing bilateral issue. Ike clearly didn’t know what he was talking about. On the way out an irked Pearson muttered to an aide, “you’d think his caddie would have mentioned it to him.”